December 25, 2011

Breaking the 4th Wall

I'd been promising myself I'd write a poem every day during my too short two week vacation.  Most years I'm in Colorado dealing with my mom's inability to do anything quietly or the franticness that my sister approaches buying presents for her husband's side of the family.   But, this year, I'm home and really wanting to spend my time writing.  Usually that involves poetry, but this year, the essay seemed to tickle my muse and I've found myself drawn to the form again and again.    So, here I am, Christmas morning and I'm thinking and wanting to get my thoughts down on paper because I don't really know what I'm thinking until I put it down on paper (virtual paper). The pattern this year seems to be to really break down how art works (or at least how I see art working),  so after finding myself talking about my set at the Green Mill and my next morning conversation with Marc I thought I'd get it down and relate it to Louis CK's show at the Beacon Theater.
                When I began thinking about my set for Chicago, I knew I wanted to do work that I connected with.   I also knew that the deadline of the show would force me to memorize work so I included pieces that were haphazardly memorized and pieces that needed to be memorized (for a longer monolog that I want to perform next summer).   Here was the list (with notes that I'll talk about):
Setlist for Chicago:
(change to Chi-town references-casual intro) Answer me that Jack
(first poetry reading and about Chicago) When the Revolution Really
Deja Vu
Dear Tom

So...what I've really been interested in is when a performance start and what constitutes performance in a poetry reading.   Now I'm not particularly fond of the "traditional" way poetry sets are arranged.   Most of the time, an experienced reader/performer will have some sort of anecdote/comment and then say something like "This poem is called...." or "My next poem..."   It seems to me to be this is a rather clunky way of letting the audience know when they should focus and when they shouldn't.  I, however, wanted a way to hold the audience for longer chunks of time, to string poems together.   I wanted to take the audience on a longer journey (20 minutes) not just 2-3 minutes, then a short breather, then 2-3 minutes, etc.   So in picking the first poem, I decided I wanted to make the poem conversational, so that the audience wouldn't  know that the reading had started and I'd have to sort of coax them into paying attention instead of metaphorically announcing, "Pay Attention."  So what I did was take the below poem, "Answer Me That," and change the references so it seemed as if it just happened.  Here's the original:
I’m sitting in a coffee shop on Central and I’m a little shocked by what I just saw on the walk over.   A white truck with a black dog in the bed pulled out in front of this green Saturn and was struck by it and spun around ninety degrees.  The dog became a cart wheeling bundle of black fur and twisted and turned in the air for a good twenty feet.   None of the people were harmed, and the cars – good old disposable cars – who cares.  But the dog – he trotted back to the truck and jumped into the bed like nothing happened.

Now I can’t get the image out of my head, this black mass flipping and twisting in the air and I’m almost glad I didn’t see him hit the pavement, and I couldn’t stop and say I was a witness and give my name and address because I kept seeing this bundle of black fur that I didn’t even realize was a dog at first flying through the air in a mass of legs and paws and I’m supposed to write about Kerouac.  I’m supposed to write about the disjointed style and verbal barrage of The Subterraneans when all I see is the black fur flipping and twisting and that image is juxtaposed against an image of my own black dog running out into the street and hitting a car and running back inside and dying on my living room floor.  And I’m supposed to write about Kerouac when I can’t help but shake and freak out. 

Take this image from my mind Jack.   Take it with you on the road and you and Cassidy can mull it over and talk about how grand it is as you plow through the eternal present of 40’s America.  And I wonder if you could write fast enough Jack.  I wonder if the very act of writing is counter to Zen because you have to absorb the world then spit it back out.  Then why write?   Why write Jack?  Answer me that.

Basically my tone was conversational and I changed one reference "Central" to "Broadway," because the Green Mill is on Broadway.   From my perspective, the audience was actually sucked in and it worked.  My anecdotes were simple and short between poems:  going to hear Peter Michaelson as my first poetry reading before a cover of his poem (which is basically set in downtown Chicago), talking a little about part of the reason I was in Chicago (which actually was my nephew's Bar Mitzvah), noting that I still don't have "Deja Vu" memorized, and talking about me and Mindy's sort of "Panel Discussion"/reception with her family to announce our marriage (which was the preface to a love poem that I added to the set right before I went up there).   And it worked.   The crowd listened, laughed, and I got many compliments after the show.
                So, in talking to Marc the next morning, I asked him what he thought of my set--(Seriously.  You're sitting in Marc Smith's apartment and have a chance to get feedback why wouldn't you ask for it?).  He was generally complimentary but actually surprised me because he felt that I "betrayed" the audience with my first poem by starting it that way.   Betrayed?  
                Wow!  I didn't feel that.  My experience was that the audience was with me the whole time.   Marc felt that I lost them but regained them because the rest of my set was authentically me.   Interesting.  So what I'm left with is this:  do poetry audiences have expectations of the performer?   Obviously, a stand-up audience expects to laugh and the lights will dim when the comic comes out on stage (but they also know to pay attention when the comic comes on-more on this in a bit).   And an audience in a movie theater knows the movie is going to start because the lights basically go to black (even beyond the dimming during the previews).    But many poetry shows don't have visual cues, the light don't dim, etc. so the poet has to provide the "roadsigns" so that the audience is in on the act.   
                  When I started my set the way I did, I actually kept the audience out of the act.    They didn't know that my first poem had actually started, but that was what I was trying to do.   So the question really is, "Did it work?" and taking Marc's criticism to heart, I don't think that it did.   He pointed out that for it to "work" I'd have to let the poem be more than it really is a pretty simple poem.  But, I think there's another way to do it and that would be to really change the poem so that there are no markers to it being a poem at all.
                Ironically, Louis CK's new special (downloaded off his website) starts with Louis walking to the Beacon Theater (through the streets of Manhattan-deliberately similar to his intro from FX show) and then into the crowd mulling around the entrance, people handing over their tickets, taking their seats, etc.   Finally as the crowd settles in the camera follows Louis onto the stage and him explaining he's going to do all the necessary announcements (turn off your cells, etc).    And then he's off.   The lights are dimmed (but Louis's already on the stage and initiates it) but there really is no marker that the show has started.   And it works.   I think part of the reason it works is that Louis's whole act is sort of "conversational."  But can it work with a poetry set?

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